Anxiety: Sometimes Helpful and Sometimes A Hindurance (page 3)
Imagine you are enrolled in Professor Josiah S. Carberry’s course in advanced psychoceramics. Today is your day to give a half-hour presentation on the topic of psychoceramic califractions. You have read several books and numerous articles on your topic and undoubtedly know more about psychoceramic califractions than anyone else in the room. Furthermore, you have meticulously prepared a set of note cards to refer to during your presentation. As you sit in class waiting for your turn to speak, you should be feeling calm and confident. But instead you’re a nervous wreck: Your heart is pounding wildly, your palms are sweaty, and your stomach is in a knot. When Professor Carberry calls you to the front of the room and you begin to speak, you have trouble remembering what you wanted to say, and you can’t read your note cards because your hands are shaking so much.
It’s not as if you want to be nervous about speaking in front of your psychoceramics class. Furthermore, you can’t think of a single reason why you should be nervous. After all, you’re an expert on your topic, you’re not having a “bad hair” day, and your classmates are not likely to giggle or throw rotten tomatoes if you make a mistake. So what’s the big deal? What happened to the self-assured student who stood practicing in front of the mirror last night? You are a victim of anxiety: You have an uncontrollable feeling of uneasiness and apprehension about an event because you’re not sure what its outcome will be. This feeling is accompanied by a variety of physiological symptoms, including a rapid heartbeat, increased perspiration, and muscular tension (e.g., a “knot” or “butterflies” in the stomach).
Just as learners have an optimal level of arousal, so, too, do they have an optimal level of anxiety. A small amount of anxiety often improves performance. When it does so, it is known as facilitating anxiety. A little anxiety spurs learners into action. For instance, it makes them go to class, read the textbook, do assignments, and study for exams. It also leads learners to approach their classwork carefully and to reflect before making a response (Shipman & Shipman, 1985). However, a great deal of anxiety usually interferes with effective performance. When it has this counterproductive effect, it is known as debilitating anxiety.
At what point does anxiety stop facilitating and begin debilitating performance? Very easy tasks—things that learners can do almost without thinking (e.g., running)—are typically facilitated by high levels of anxiety. But more difficult tasks—those that require considerable thought and mental effort—are best performed with only a small or moderate level of anxiety. A lot of anxiety in difficult situations can interfere with several processes critical for successful learning and performance: (Ben-Zeev et al., 2005; Cassady, 2004; Covington, 1992; Eysenck, 1992; Hagtvet & Johnsen, 1992; I. G. Sarason, 1980).
- Paying attention to what needs to be learned
- Processing information effectively (e.g., by organizing or elaborating on it)
- Retrieving and using information and skills that have previously been learned
Anxiety is especially likely to interfere with such processes when a task places heavy demands on working memory or long-term memory—for instance, when a task involves problem solving or creativity. In such situations learners may be so preoccupied about doing poorly that they can’t get their minds on what they need to accomplish (Eysenck, 1992; Matthews, Zeidner, & Roberts, 2006; McLeod & Adams, 1989; Tobias, 1985; J. C. Turner, Thorpe, & Meyer, 1998).
In general, learners are more likely to experience debilitating anxiety when they face a threat, a situation in which they believe they have little or no chance of succeeding. Facilitating anxiety is more common when learners face a challenge, a situation in which they believe they can probably achieve success with a significant yet reasonable amount of effort (Combs, Richards, & Richards, 1976; Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989; Deci & Ryan, 1992).
Children and adolescents are apt to have some degree of anxiety, either facilitating or debilitating, about many of the following:
- A situation in which physical safety is at risk. For example, they will understandably feel anxious if violence is common in their school or neighborhood.
- A situation in which self-worth is threatened. For example, they may feel anxious when someone makes unflattering remarks about their race or gender.
- Physical appearance. For example, they may be concerned about being too fat or thin or about reaching puberty either earlier or later than peers.
- A new situation. For example, they may experience uncertainty when moving to a new school district.
- Judgment or evaluation by others. For example, they may worry about receiving a low grade from a teacher or about being liked and accepted by peers.
- Frustrating subject matter. For example, they may have considerable anxiety about mathematics if they’ve had difficulty tackling mathematical concepts and problems in the past.
- Excessive classroom demands. For example, they are apt to feel anxious when teachers expect them to learn a great deal of material in a very short time.
- Classroom tests. For example, some students panic at the mere thought of having to take a test, and many students are exceedingly anxious about high-stakes tests that affect their chances for promotion or graduation.
- The future. For example, adolescents may worry about how they will make a living after they graduate from high school.
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